Want to Improve Your Teaching? Pay Your Colleagues a Visit!

Recently, I suggested a grading workshop to my colleagues. I wanted to see how my grading standards compared to fellow history faculty at NOVA. I had looked at my colleagues’ syllabi, but I wanted to discuss grading with them a bit more in-depth. It’s great to say on your rubric that a thesis statement needs to go beyond mere summary, but we might have different ideas about whether a specific thesis statement, in a particular paper, actually does this. I brought two essays submitted by two of my students from a previous semester (with names and other identifiers removed, of course) and all of us graded them and compared what grades we would give. It’s a classic exercise, meant to help faculty calibrate our grading rubrics, and talk more generally about what we look for in our students’ written work. After it was over, one of my colleagues sent an e-mail out informing us how useful the workshop had been, and noting that we should make workshops like this a recurring feature in our department.

I’ve also recently begun to visit my colleagues’ classes, taking notes on how they teach, and meeting with them to discuss what they do that might make me a better teacher. My colleagues at NOVA have extended me an open invitation to visit their classes whenever I wish, and I have done the same with them. I’ve visited three colleagues so far this semester, and plan to visit their classes again soon. All three of them have given me great ideas about how to present material, and how to build rapport with students, especially early in the semester. My experiences have got me thinking about two distinct but interrelated topics: how often we actually make the time to learn from one another as faculty, and the impact such learning can have on our students’ education.

I’ll begin with the second issue. In an e-mail following our grading workshop, one of my colleagues wrote something that I can’t get out of my head. Community colleges come with an inherent stigma, she said. Because we serve a broad population of students from all walks of life, and every imaginable level of preparational background, our students may enter our classrooms believing that simply by enrolling at a community college, they’ve already failed. Many of our students come into our classrooms “defeated,” my colleague wrote. They see their friends and peers at four-year schools, and believe that they are less smart, less capable, because they’re not at a four-year school.

She’s right. Not about being less smart, but about the negative perception of a community college education. I’ve observed this perception in my classroom, and I’ve heard it reinforced by both students and faculty in the things they say. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard someone say “it’s only community college,” and every time someone has coached me to ease up on my grading standards because “these are community college students.” I am convinced that sentiments like that only further reinforce the belief among our students that they aren’t as bright as their four-year counterparts—and that they aren’t getting as good an education as their peers at four-year schools. The fact that these sentiments are “well-meaning”—that they’re meant to simply acknowledge that we all encounter students who lack the preparation they should have, often through no fault of their own—is far outweighed by the damage such sentiments cause. Psychologists talk about the difference between a growth mindset—basically the perception that knowledge can be acquired over time, through study and even trial and failure—and a fixed mindset: the perception that intelligence is essentially “fixed,” that a person is either smart or isn’t. The research suggests that people with a fixed mindset take fewer risks, and are more likely to see failure at a given task as evidence that they’re not “smart,” rather than an opportunity to hone skills and eventually achieve mastery. Many students have a fixed mindset, and attending a community college may reinforce the perception that they’re simply not “smart.” This, in turn, leads them to perceive failure—say, a poor grade on a test or a paper—as further evidence that they’re not cut out for college. The belief that the school they are attending is “just a community college” only reinforces this belief, and might even make it worse, because it implies that they failed at a task or assignment that has already been “dumbed down.”

I find that one effective way to combat this in the classroom is to offer rigorous assignments for students to complete, but to be much more explicit than I used to be about what, exactly, I want them to do, and what I expect of them. But I’ve acquired something of a reputation for being a hard grader, and I really wasn’t sure how what I was doing in the classroom compared to my colleagues. Were my grading standards far higher than theirs? Was I doing something in the classroom—or not doing something—that perhaps inadvertently led capable students to believe they couldn’t succeed in my class?

This was where the first issue comes in play: learning from my colleagues. The grading workshop offered me some encouraging feedback. I learned that my grading standards are not out of line with those of my peers, and my writing assignments, while “ambitious,” as a colleague characterized them, are not unreasonable. In addition, visits to my colleagues’ classes allowed me to see how they build a rapport with students, how they communicate lessons to them, and what they cover and at what depth. Every time I visit my colleagues’ classes I learn something valuable about how to teach. This helps me avoid complacency because it pushes me to constantly retool and revise what I’m doing. It also reassures me that, while I push my students and have high expectations for them, my colleagues do, too. I’ve learned ways to foster a growth mindset in my students, so that they view my criticism of their work the way I intend: as constructive, meant to help them reach the mastery I know they’re capable of achieving. (Some faculty even devote time in class to discussing this topic explicitly, an approach I think I’ll try next fall).

But this has also made me acutely aware of how infrequently faculty actually do stuff like this on a regular basis. Most of us don’t go into one another’s classrooms very often, if at all. And most of us don’t make it a point to schedule teaching workshops within our departments—or with other departments—to share insights about how we teach. These are aspects of our campus cultures that we can, and should, work to change.

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